Subscriber Interview: Guy Coulon Explains Why Johann Zarco's Unique Approach Makes Him So Fast

In a year that was full of surprises, perhaps the biggest was the performance of Johann Zarco in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. After previous Moto2 champions had come into MotoGP and taken their time to find their feet – or in the case of Tito Rabat, struggled badly – the 27-year-old Frenchman had taken to the premier class like a duck to water, leading the first six laps of his first race in MotoGP before crashing out.

That race would not be a one off. He finished on the podium at his home Grand Prix at Le Mans, started from pole at Assen, and ended the season with three podiums in total, as Rookie of the Year, as best independent rider of the year, and sixth in the championship. Zarco was a factor to be accounted for at almost every race in his debut season.

Earlier this year, at Barcelona, we spoke to his crew chief Guy Coulon, a veteran of the series and one of the most thoughtful and wisest of the chief mechanics in the paddock. Coulon gave us a fascinating insight into how he works with Johann Zarco, and why he believes the Frenchman has been so quick this year. He talks about what makes him unique, the difference in his approach compared to other riders Coulon has worked with in the past, and what makes him such a competitive rider.

Q: Johann Zarco is doing something extraordinary in his rookie season. Where does that come from, do you think?

GC: Now we know better, of course, so we can analyze it. But in the beginning, when we started to test together during the winter, we could feel he had some good possibilities, some strong points, no weak points. So I mean – and this is true also for Jonas [Folger] – from the first test, he had no problems with the MotoGP about braking style, how to use the throttle. It was already very good for MotoGP, so this is a good point.

Then, when did we feel we can quickly have a good result? The first time, it was the last day on the test before race week in Qatar. The IRTA test the week before. Because the first day, he improved at Turn 2, or Turn 4, and in some points, and in some others. And also he was practicing starts and he had some good starts. Then the last day of the test, it seems for us he put everything together. And from this time, we thought, OK, if he is able to do this again in race week, he can be very competitive. And he was.

Q: You said he didn't have any weak points. Is there normally a weak point which Moto2 riders have when they come to MotoGP?

GC: Or Superbike riders! Because, you know, with MotoGP, you need to be able to brake strongly without upsetting the bike. So in the data, you can understand quite quickly if the rider is able to do this or not. And it's very difficult to change.

Q: That's the difference between the carbon and the steel brakes?

GC: Maybe, that's possible. But I'm not sure, because Johann and Jonas can do something well from the beginning with carbon discs.

Q: Secret is to be smooth be strong?

GC: It is a secret! As you say, it is a secret! You need to be able to brake strongly, without upsetting the bike. This is the way. Then after that, you need also to be very smooth with the throttle, to close it or to open it. This is with the Yamaha bike, I mean. When the rider is doing well, when you check on TV or on track, the rider looks like he feels he is on his out lap or his in lap, because it seems there is no big attack. He's very fluid.

Q: Because Jorge Lorenzo never looked like he was trying...

GC: Yes, this is the style for Yamaha. But I think it's really difficult to do one complete lap like this, and then after that, one complete session, and then after that, one complete race. It's difficult, but it is the way to do it. And Johann can do that, so that's good.

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Like i said in my previous post, That guy with the blonde curly hair,(in the Tech 3 team) he knows a bunch of stuff. Has been around for a while. Oh yeah, how could I forget Guy Coulon. My friend Lynelle pointed him out to me at Phillip Island years ago.

Wow.this is the kind of content that makes me happy to give you some money. Thks! Very interesting about the work between a rider and his team.

Fascinating interview, thanks. A succinct look into the mind of a rider who isn't scared to look at things from a fresh perspective. 

Another great interview. So impressed by the way Johann Zarco has imposed himself on the MotoGP grid. As the interview with Dovi indicated, there's a specific (although very different), totally clear philosophy behind his approach. Whether that would work as well in a different team, without probably the world's most experienced crew chief in Guy Coulon, I really don't know. Must confess, as an aside, I've wondered whether Bradley Smith's more technical approach was a problem in working with Guy last season (and perhaps with his first crew chief at KTM this season), and whether this was the fundamental reason why he  lost form so badly when the new tyres were brought in. And whether Maverick's problem at Yamaha has been that he has so much talent that he has never had to learn what a bike should feel like because he could always outperform the bike he was sat on. Whatever, my question is whether there is a limit to how far a rider without a technical appreciation of what the bike is doing can go. Or whether the complexity of a contemporary MotoGP bike is such that it is a positive advantage for the rider to focus on giving the best possible qualitative feedback and essentially to leave the analysis to the experts. Shall be interested to see what subscriber colleagues have to say on this. 

Such an intelligent post and an interesting question deserves a reply. I think it's clearly, but generally, the latter.  That is all the talent in the world won't help you if you can't hop off the machine and give decent feedback. I think that this is the logic behind the decision to require lower spec electronics, which is to require more rider input and to emphasise the need for all of the other components to be exploited to produce a winner. The problem with the question though is the fact is that the feedback might be essential but it varies from rider to rider...hence this year the gossip seems to be that there was plenty of feedback at Yamaha but it wasn't consistent. And what would anyone do at Honda with MM's feedback and that from anyone and everyone else? So maybe the answer is that you cannot win on talent alone, and the better you give feedback on your personal and exact 'go faster' requirements the more likely you are to succeed.

As for Bradley Smith: there have been a couple of interviews of him on this site and some others, and he has impressed me massively on the honesty and clarity front. If there was any issue for him this year it (would be my guess) was giving feedback favouring the long term development of the KTM platform rather than his own immediate self interests. He strikes me as someone who gives brliiant feedback but his team are still on the learning curve. He is one of many I will be cheering for this year.

Cheers and thanks for the interesting post.

One thing which crops up again and again is how much confusion there is among fans (and media, to be honest) about what rider feedback actually involves, and what the different roles are of rider and crew chief (and data engineer, suspension technician, and the rest of the mechanics and crew). I have tried to figure out exactly what it all entails by talking to riders and crew chiefs, but it is still something of a mystery.

At its heart, however, is a separation of duties. It is the role of the rider to go out, try to lap as fast as possible, and to note everything the bike is doing well and what it isn't doing well. When they come into the garage, their job is to communicate as clearly as possible what they discovered on track. 

The role of the crew chief is to translate that feedback into technical solutions (or more accurately, to gather that information, and get the person in the crew best positioned to find a fix to come up with a solution). They should then communicate with the rider where the bike should feel better, and tell them to test it again. 

In reality, for both riders and crew chiefs, the biggest task is setting priorities. Great riders (with good feedback) will be able to not only understand where a bike is having problems, but also which problems are costing the most time, where the most can be gained. A great rider should come in and say, I have problems with braking into Turns 6 and 8, and problems with acceleration out of Turn 10, but I am losing the most in braking, fix that first. (This, incidentally, is why they have rider coaches, because a rider coach or spotter can see what other riders are doing and see if they are having similar problems, which means it is the track, or not, which means it is bike / rider). 

For crew chiefs, the same is true. They need to listen to what their riders tell them, check that against the data, then prioritize fixing the things which will make the biggest difference, both in terms of lap time and over full race distance. 

So whether a rider has some technical ability or not is not really relevant. In the end, it is about communication, and setting priorities, and understanding this is a race, and you only have to be quicker than your rivals over 27 laps, rather than trying to make the bike perfect in every aspect.

Yes , Separation of duties makes perfect sense. Riders ride, give feedack (mostly with gestures) and engineers work on the bike. 

Qnd it seems that's exactly what Coulon and Zarco are doing and I understand from what Coulon says that Zarco is able to prioritize and tell to Coulon something Like "I have issues in turn 3 and 4 and 11 , basically the same issue. Check Data in turn 4, you'll see better there". 

I would be extremely interested to read the same kind of interview of Massimo Branchini who was Zarco's crew chief in AJO's team and is currently Oliveira's crew-chief. This guy has tons of experience in Moto3 and Moto2 and I never heard much of him. 

Great comment Cloverleaf (Irish?) and FANTASTIC piece David and Guy! The off season articles here this year are Alien. Ironically we can love peering into "How you do it" here and understanding it, the opposite of the point at hand. The circus adapting to new rules re electronics plus new "conventional" tires has brought a LOT more for us to examine. My favorite era is now, deep appreciation is evident throughout the GP community.

While some of what we have here obviously can be generalized, this is Coulon on Zarco's 2017 season. The rider's entry to MotoGP, within the Tech 3 project on the mildly modified 2016 Yamaha. This is a rather particular context in some ways re what is best for an approach amongst rider and team.

Contrast for instance Smith 2017 in Orange. First season of a brand new bike, an infant. SO much change of SO many variables. So little support and information available outside the project (imagine being the Michelin staff walking into that garage!). Hoffman was handed a slow shakedown. Kallio did a lengthier development and tentative race weekend testing that made quick work. Then Smith begins the real work of contesting a season with basically a Moto3 team. Is a 2017 Zarco way better there?

Tech 3 2017 garage gets a fully developed and sorted bike with data for every track. Rossi and Lorenzo with Factory Yamaha had brought a long running project to a zenith. When Zarco first walks into the garage at the Qatar test he is utterly relaxed and direct, welcomed by Coulon and Herve like he arriving at a dinner party. They praise the box aesthetics in French. Zarco notices where his helmet will sit. Then they focus on where Rossi's old bike will go. Now he is ready to take the bike to the track like he is starting a race weekend mid season. No minimizing the skill of Tech 3 staff nor the difficulty of their task, but yes differentiating it amongst others in the class.

Then there is how Zarco is put together. Plus the DNA of the team, and their fit. For Zarco to be comfortable and gelling he wants less understanding of technical aspects. He needs freedom from distraction from his experience on the bike. He IS thinking btw. Plenty. He is strategizing his work. Breaking IT into components, while accepting the bike as a whole. His team is breaking the bike performance into components while accepting the riding as a whole.

Contrasts abound. The particular issues are varied. McCoy on the Kawasaki - such a poor dynamic. Remember his face in the box? Pain. Alienation. Fear and discouragement. Electronics were demonically ill. Then Jacque, who had focused on this bike as it is, runs it at the front in the rain in a one off. Expectations low, had a base setting and needed little more. Hopkins with a fresh smile and tan marches in with willingness to ride the bike at the limit.

Michael Bartholomy is about to start his 28th season managing a team. MarcVDS is quite comparable to Tech3 right? But the 2016 Honda rolled to their garage this year is quite a contrast to Zarco's bike. Rabat? So different than a Zarco! Bartholomy has said he "makes" riders in his view, and it is very personal. He described Redding as "my fifth child" that his team "built him up to be a successful rider." (If McCoy was a child if that team, he unwanted one?).

On Redding's pit board the team would go so far as to put "BREATHE" or "WANT IT" on it. That is quite a reach into the rider's helmet don't you think? Busy. But perhaps there is a rider for whom this is effective.

When Rabat first came to MarcVDS in Moto2 Bartholomy was asked his thoughts of him after two tests. He said "He's a very grounded person, he trains a lot, rides a bike every day and prepares well. He's a bit more nervous than Scott in that he likes to have a 100% set up and likes to know exactly what's what before going into a season." He has also said that the whole team is like a family that should get together as a whole and discuss many things.

When asked what he looks for in a rider, he says one that is a hard worker that can take advantage of what the team can give them to make them more complete as a rider. This guided them towards Rabat. Bartholomy literally assessed what Rabat was missing as a rider, determined that he could give it to him and set out to do so. He has also stated that the rider must have a role in moving the bike forward along with the team and the manfacturer. Such a contrast to our Coulon - Zarco dynamic! Btw, did you know that MarcVDS had the option of getting Tech3's Yamaha from 2013 rather than the "customer" Honda? They went with Honda since they were promised a "factory bike for the second year" but the Yamaha had the old bike for 2yrs and a vague future afterwards, mirroring Forward Racing. So weird.

We get on thin ice however generalizing from one team to another. One bike to another. One rider to another.

The one that got the most attention and press was the Rossi - Ducati "Italian dream team" adventure. Shitty press btw - sensational, personal, vague. If Rossi and Burgess with Furusawa could win right off with the turd Yamaha, shouldn't they be able to in Red? Nope.

Tardozzi, during the transition to the 2016 bike, focused on engineering and showing the rider's what they could do with the bike - so the rider's could then show them what they could do with it. Competition was fostered amongst riders to show what they could achieve. Iannone? Out came his big shiny balls. The dynamic got out of hand and even adversarial. But obviously what a great fit with Dovisioso. He worked hard and intelligently. There is some ego in the Ducati project, and so little with Dovi. Tardozzi has said that theirs is a top team in which a rider from second tier teams can "grow perfectly" to "be a top guy" so they ask the rider to "grow from where they are." He also looked forward openly to having a Marquez or Lorenzo while stoking competition amongst the two very different Andreas. Not exactly a "family atmosphere" like some others (Suzuki w Brivio). Nor the convivial easy garage environment with riders at Tech 3. But look at a rider like Iannone over at the relaxed Brivio family? Iannone right away went fast on the bike, taking it to a limit. Then he just backed off and said he needed more from the engineers, a petulant kid. But Iannone has the rare situation of a rider that has come to ride the Ducati style that is the opposite of most others.

Here is a related note: Ben Spies Tech 3 --> Factory Yamaha where WHAT THE HECK was THAT about? Did he encounter a malignant supernatural entity? Bizarre espionage? Well, maybe not. But does anyone know?! Perhaps, like Luke Skywalker on Degoba entering the mysterious dark where he kills his father and sees his own face, the only evil there was brought with him. Let me explain.

So Ben "Herve Poncharal at Tech 3 is showing his support by allowing me to come on board with my crew chief Tom Houseworth and Gregory Wood, my mechanic." They have a good year. But it is not smooth as silk. Tom came from Superbikes. Spies' manager was his mother, which we can leave aside for now. But Ben had obliterated WSBK in an unheralded of late fashion, and he and Houseworth arrived at Tech 3 with a "the rider says what he wants if he is right, so give it to him" way.

Ben - "I'm a rider when I come in I don’t just come in and I say stuff to stay stuff, to sound like I know what I’m talking about. If I come and we made a change and I don’t know what the difference, I’ll say so. The lap time was the same, but look at the data, look at the bike, and you got to to tell me which one was better because it was so close. I can’t tell you a difference and I don’t want to go in the wrong direction. That’s how I approach it as a rider. When I know there’s a difference, obviously I’ll tell them. When I know that we can make the bike better in a certain area."

Got it. Then Houseworth, speaking about Tech 3 while Spies was starting his Factory Yamaha time, said that "last year’s data tech could be stubborn and some of the issues were never resolved." -Wow!-

Finally halfway through the year Houseworth went to the next level and consulted with the Yamaha engineer outside his team instead. Then he said that this move, and a year’s experience, made the transition to the factory team smoother. Really?

Houseworth explained that now, when Spies comes in and gives his comments to him, he takes it directly to the data engineer, “and the reason Ben sees such an improvement is this guy kind of knows what we were talking about last year, so he’s just like pinpointing the areas and it’s getting done quick. So Ben, you know, obviously sees that a huge improvement and it is, actually, it is a huge improvement."

The team also signed up Erkki Siukola, the Finnish data technician who worked with the Yoshimura Suzuki USA team before moving on to work with the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team for a short bit. "I have a great data guy, Erkki, that I worked with in the States, that works with me,” Spies said. “It’s a lot of communication, but it’s also the factory team. Not saying anything bad about the Tech 3 team—it was great; they put me in a position where I was able to get to the factory team and we got a pole, we got podiums, we had great results. But the factory team is going to handpick the best they’ve got of the Yamaha family to put on the team."

Spies said. “Let’s say I need some more engine brake here, I need some more wheelie control, traction control, I want less power here. When I know I need something in that spot and I tell them, what I noticed with the factory team is it’s changed. It’s not just a guess. I don’t have to go out three or four times to fix one area. Sometimes you have to go out a few times to fix an area because you’re not quite sure of how you need to go about it to make it better. But when I come in and say, ‘Hey, I for sure need this right there, this is where I want it,’ when I go back out, more than likely it’s been, like, on the money in the change. And that’s just due to the factory team having the best engineers that they feel they can put on the team.” BUT notice that Ben says this RIGHT after saying that he has brought his OWN former Superbike data engineer with him? To join HIS crew chief and head mechanic?

Houseworth said the goal for the first few races w the Factory Team is “to get him a little more tuned in. He’s really smart. Once I tell him what I need to look at and what they want to see, he’s really smart at fine tuning it and then getting us really good data and that’s when we go to the engineer." “Ben and I, we’ll just move along flat lining and just deal with it. We’ll just do our thing and go to Qatar."

In hindsight the bizarre mess in the Factory Yamaha garage with Spies might reflect what happens when a rider brings in his own crew chief, mechanic and data engineer from Superbikes and focuses on getting what the rider wants in a MotoGP garage. And btw I was cheering Spies on as much as anyone, definitely a fan. But perhaps not a fan of the methodology from Superbikes being superimposed in the garage here if it was a factor in his struggles. Who knows.

I don't think the Coulon or Zarco approach is "right" per se. But it IS the right fit for each other with that 2016+ Yamaha in your garage at a time when the Honda is just getting out of a hole in the ground and Factory Yamaha just fell in it.

Brief video of Zarco walking in to the Tech 3 garage at the first test with the team. You can see the ironed out comfort and focus.

If you get curious re Guy Coulon and haven't seen it go peek around for video and info on his personal from scratch 6 x 50cc cyl 300 2 stroke GP bike. He is a nut.

Keep up the fantastic off season articles David, thanks so much.

Perhaps Zarco's purely a natural.  But perhaps it's also easy to assume all or most MotoGP riders are naturals, no?  Theoretically, they're the best in the world, therefore, they must have natural ability on top of learned or experiential ability.  However, I don't think this is the case.  Maybe that's stating the obvious, but these guys have been twisting a throttle atop two wheels since the time they were still learning to form complete sentences. 

There's a difference between natural and learned ability, where natural is almost exclusively gained through observation, application and then feel.  Thinking wrecks these people.  They're better off not.  A natural athlete has difficulty explaining what they do and they're often terrible instructors.  They can't articulate their actions - breakdown and outline their process or progression.  

 The best of this sport, or any other, are those that possess natural ability and then leverage experience on top of that.  They have an unparalleled and unteachable connection between their mind and their body and whatever their body is connected to.  Marc Marquez is the epitome of such an example.  

I do not believe there is a limit for this type of athlete, for it's they who change the game.  Redefine the rules or the way it can be played.  We've been witnessing it for the past few years.  So I think it's possible Zarco's simply a natural, and categorically breaking down how or why he's fast may be futile.  

Yes and no! There are many ways to get there. Importantly the rider needs to be able to harness their OWN natural way of being, a primary neurological style if you will. Their bread and butter day to day has to be worked with. Then they ALSO must grow with a less familiar processing, and break through/epiphany moments are known to come more there AFTER the bread and butter functioning in bedded in.

Temperament is a thing. More so neurological diversity is too. It is too easy to say Rossi is a "natural" and Lorenzo is not. It is accurate to an extent, and I don't disagree. There is an "and..."

Not figuratively, but literally as an example: in actual astronauts the prevalence of left handedness is exorbitantly high. While the general population is something like 12% astronauts are about 70% left handed (via memory from data for the beginning in the 1960's through the 1980's). They were first experimental aircraft pilots, that also could do LOTS of the sciences needed. Strong right AND left brain functioning, more open crossover via ventricles. They didn't have PET scans back then, but we know that they have full rich analytical functioning with lots of intuitive feel, conceptual synthesis, low "survival mind" paralysis etc. More like a Smith perhaps, or Lorenzo.

Iannone's limitations may be with not having enough of this. Melandri too. Rossi was very gifted in "being a natural" but has ALSO develop strongly this analytical function. There is a wisdom begat in the fire of experience near the limit. Flexible diverse consciousness that is situationally responsive. Not too much willfullness, but enough fire in the abdomen. Natural instinct does not account for much, as the human organism literally does not arrive here with it for going over 30 miles per hour. The analytical thinking is needed to harness innate talent, but after the felt sense of the body. When Rossi/Burgess/Furusawa won the first race in 2004 we know Vale had been quite analytical during the previous off season, the accounts are there. Reporting btw is biased, especially in Italy, away from the analytical and thinking rider. I love the passion, but not the looseness. Then there is the Japanese mind set, contrasting in skew.

Zarco started racing later in age. He thinks and plans. He has developed his skills and continues to voraciously. He also has right hand sensitivity and feel that may be becoming the likes of Stoner. And he is VERY aggressive, brave. But more tempered than over the limit riders.

Professor Dovisioso will never have the fan base of a Marquez. I will always love "Dear George" letters with Gigi, and won't be seen wearing 99. Schwantz on a Suzuki makes me sing more than Lorenzo on the Ducati, but I praise Lorenzo for adapting to the Seamless Eyebrow Bologna Missile. The Greek mythology or hero's journey quality of multiple legitimate archetypes is an essential part of what I love about the circus.

Zarco is my standout rider of the 2017 season. But the 2016 Yamaha is such a big part in it that we cannot underappreciate. When Ducati arrived in MotoGP we had what I then thought was a uniquely revolutionary project to contrast with Honda and Yamaha. But now we have a project that is a stand out for me more freshly in KTM. They remind me of Dovi. But the optimal rider for them? And crew chief? Dovi? For now, perhaps to get it forward there needs to be a hard working blue collar type guy. A Hayden or a Crutchlow. Or is it a thinker like Smith? Perhaps the project needs one sort of bloke to get it sufficiently developed. Likely one with experience, but NOT pigeon holed into a ridgid mindset. The organization itself needs development so as to not fall into a Suzuki-like mediocrity trap of "it isn't possible for us." Or a rider like Iannone that will reinforce that (he and Suzuki may be the poorest fit in the class now). THEN we get a "natural phenom" on board.

While a Marquez may be able to take a KTM closest to the front the most rapidly, perhaps it is a Dovisioso that could take the whole project closer to the top of the circus foodchain given a bit more time. He has gotten the Honda, Yamaha, AND Ducati quite far. He himself is developing so much at increasing rates. I would love to see him and a solid crew chief fit at KTM soon. Then the pesky young orange menace from Moto3 cleans up in Moto2 ala Marquez then gets a #4 tow and draft into Austrian Alien territory. Not likely? Perhaps, but if Lorenzo and Dovi come to be on equal performance but unequal pay, and KTM surpasses Aprilia and many kids have a poster of Pedrosa on their wall?

Adaptive ingenuity is brilliant. Synergy of fit amongst the pieces eludes our view.

Interesting comments on the left/right brain characteristics of astronauts (and I'm sure pilots, in general...also interesting to note the analogy some have made of pilots and motorcycle racers, the bikes and the planes - I'm now summoning memories of interviews within Mark Neal's doc Fastest).  

Also, to clarify, I don't mean to discount the need, fun, and spirit of analyzing, quantifying, measuring, etc, what makes people or things excel.  I like to do it as much as the next guy.  Perhaps even obsessively within my own personal life!  However, sometimes, IMO, it just becomes inexplicable.  Romanticism takes over and I get tempted to assign some majestic, unknowable quality to something I can't explain.

I should add that for those "naturals" out there, I believe they also happen to be some of the most cerebral and intelligent within their craft - there's just something that separates them once it comes time to perform or carry out the actual act of their craft.  The mind turns off.  It's all feel from there.  Fascinating. 

...what they were thinking when they pulled off something spectacular, and often times, their response is...they weren't. 

Have to appreciate witnessing a prime example of the ideal combination of intuition, feel and experience producing positive results.  

Bradley Smith comes to mind.  Fair to say he's the antithesis of Zarco in regard to technical knowledge and involvement?  

...great article David. Thank you for helping us to better grasp the inner workings of our sport, the machinations of which would otherwise chunter away in the background, never fully understood. (Plus, you give me the chance to use the word "chunter", which-let's face it-needs to be used more often...)


Great comments from a few suscribers here. A real pleasure to read so insightful content from David AND his readers.